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Reflecting on Two Articles on a Post-Christian Future

January 2, 2019 5 comments

Manny Tejeda-Moreno wrote an article, “Editorial: Douthat’s post-Christian future, a response” for The Wild Hunt, responding to a New York Times op-ed “The Return of Paganism”, an article written by Ross Douthat.  Rather than dig through both articles, I found things within Tejeda-Moreno’s article I felt were worth responding to. Tejeda-Moreno’s response to Douthat highlights things that I felt were worth exploring, as I have seen Pagan and polytheist communities struggle through the fourteen years I have on-and-off called myself a Pagan and have been a polytheist.

It is pretty clear Ross Douthat is not a part of any modern Pagan religion, and he has been an op-ed writer for several years. I am not shocked Tejeda-Moreno is dissatisfied with the article. Over the course of his life Douthat has been a Pentecostal and a Catholic and was educated at Harvard. He is not only writing from outside our communities essentially about us, as Tejeda-Moreno clearly points out, he is doing so poorly informed.

His lamentations that there may be more witches than members of the United Church of Christ should be evidence enough that he is mourning or at least ill at ease in the post-Christian future he sees on the horizon. I find this notion at odds, though, with those exercising levers of power and in the majority. The most prominent and numerous members in US society are some flavor of monotheist, predominantly Christian. Those who are not Christians in positions of power, such as political or academic settings, are often agnostic or atheist. All tend to default to some variation of ‘hierarchy of religion’ in which one’s personal flavor (Christian, atheist, or agnostic) is the summit of the hierarchy. Pagan and polytheist religions are often derided for their belief in ‘demons/delusions’, ‘outmoded ideas’, ‘dead gods’, and the like, treated more as curiosities than anything worthy of regard either in academia or in interfaith settings.

I echo Tejeda-Moreno’s disappointment with Douthat’s assertion that Paganism is “some civic cult with supernatural experimentation driven by secret societies of literati weaving post-Christian intellectualism into society.” Modern Pagan religions are neither that organized nor that well-developed. Even if we were, intellectualism or rationalism is not the main philosophy of a good number of Pagans or polytheists.  We certainly do not have the numbers for civic cultus, nor the structures which would make it relevant so far as I can see.

In the first place, modern Pagan religions do not even internally agree on what Paganism itself is. The term is so nebulous as to be unwieldy, effectively ending in some vague sense of ‘not Christian’. Some Pagans who use the word as their primary means of identification are polytheist, believing in and worshiping many Gods. Some Pagans who use the word as their primary means of identification are atheist, believing that there are no Gods and worship nothing. Saying anything accurate when even basic and essential matters of theology are disagreed upon internal to specific religions within Paganism is almost impossible. For instance: Are Wiccans theist? If so, which Wiccans, if any, are theist and which, if any, are atheist?

Then there comes issues of who gets to decide who gets to be called Wiccan in the first place. Gatekeeping, who gets to do it, and who has the right to gatekeep specific Pagan religions are a series of ongoing issues in many Pagan and polytheist religions. Without these basic methods of organization decided, it matters little whether one says “Wiccans are theist” or “Wiccans are atheist” because the ground upon which the matter would rest shifts dependent on the practitioner and not the identifier itself.  The reason I go over words and their meanings so often in my posts is because of this ongoing problem.  There is a consistent need to reinforce what words mean because the language in Pagan communities is inconsistently applied and used.  I can get more to the core of what I am by using the word polytheist rather than Pagan because, where Pagan is a very mushy word, polytheist says what it is right on the tin.

I have a bone to pick with Tejeda-Moreno, and that is the same bone I have with everyone and anyone who uses the term ‘organized religion’ without including our own religions.  The term organized religion means what it says, “A structured system of faith or worship” though most associate it with monotheist religions.  Every single religion is organized or it is not a religion.  Were Tejeda-Moreno to have written something like “Christian religions have failed their faithful and the broader society in two ways” or “Monotheist religions have failed their faithful and the broader society in two ways” there would be less issue from me.  It’s still an over-generalization of centuries of history, but it would be more accurate than to just hand Christianity and other monotheist religions the phrase organized religion.

Further, setting up Paganism and organized religions as being against one another is nonsensical.  The “continued toleration of sexual abuse and misogyny exposes all the other moral failings” regardless of which religion it is in question, and Paganism is no more immune to this than Catholicism is.  Indeed, it is also true that “Individuals working to experience their authentic selves are deluged by moral pronouncements serving only to layer guilt and self-hatred” is equally applicable to the Pagan and polytheist communities.  Arguably, it is something that most faith communities engage in rather than the work of their religions’ callings.

The failure here is that Douthat fails to recognize that people should be free to believe in a religion that offers them meaning without ridicule.

I do not think that he fails to understand this so much as it is in his Catholic view that there are true and good religions and those that are not.  It’s also his mistake in assuming that we Pagans and polytheists only conceive as Gods belonging to Creation, and not able to be both immanent and transcendent, or one or the other.  His agreements with Steven Smith’s assessment of things rests on shaky ground as Smith commits pantheists and atheists to his view without even so much as bringing in contemporary Pagan or polytheist authors to his article while mischaracterizing those same religious movements.  In it, he ignores the lived religions of Pagans and polytheists and misses what immanent as well as transcendent Gods, Ancestors, and spirits do to the weltanschauung of the religions and people who believe in Them and worship Them.

Tejeda-Moreno continues:

He avoids a basic reality, as well: individuals are not turning away from organized religion. They are turning toward something that has meaning for them. It may be praxis, or it may be dogma; whatever the reason, they are invoking the fundamental human rights of thought, belief, and religion. Complaining about them as sinful distortions, or implying a divine force is preparing to act in retribution, is using fear in service of patriarchal oppression.

Again, I think Douthat isn’t avoiding a basic reality, but couching in terms familiar to himself and his religion.  Douthat’s point is made here in that regard, and it is a good one:

These descriptions are debatable, but suppose Smith is right. Is the combination of intellectual pantheism and a this-world-focused civil religion enough to declare the rebirth of paganism as a faith unto itself, rather than just a cultural tendency within a still-Christian order?

It seems to me that the answer is not quite, because this new religion would lack a clear cultic aspect, a set of popular devotions, a practice of ritual and prayer of the kind that the paganism of antiquity offered in abundance. And that absence points to the essential weakness of a purely intellectualized pantheism: It invites its adherents to commune with a universe that offers suffering and misery in abundance, which means that it has a strong appeal to the privileged but a much weaker appeal to people who need not only sense of wonder from their spiritual lives but also, well, help.

Douthat goes on to say:

However, there are forms of modern paganism that do promise this help, that do offer ritual and observance, augury and prayer, that do promise that in some form gods or spirits really might exist and might offer succor or help if appropriately invoked. I have in mind the countless New Age practices that promise health and well-being and good fortune, the psychics and mediums who promise communication with the spirit world, and also the world of explicit neo-paganism, Wiccan and otherwise.

He’s not wrong in his assessment here.  One of the major appeals in Pagan and polytheist religions is that we have living relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that in some way invite us to share in co-creating with Them.  We are invited to appreciate the beauty of our Holy Powers, the Worlds we inhabit, and so much more. Our Holy Powers occupy many places simultaneously that we can appreciate on multiple levels, including that of devotion, aesthetic, beauty, joy, and more.  We build relationships with our Holy Powers at our altars and in our statues.  We build relationships with Them in places They hold in high regard.  We build relationships with Them in sacred places in nature or our cities.  We build relationships with our Holy Powers when we bear jewelry or tattoos of Their forms, symbols or Names.  We build relationships with Them when we lay down offerings at a tree, look out to the Sun’s or Moon’s rise, feel Them in the breeze.  We build relationships with Them in the grip of writing a poem, knitting a blanket, or making a piece of art.

Douthat goes on with ill-conceived generalized histrionics that are wrong, namely in regards to ancient Roman elites.  Polytheism, not pantheism was the norm.  He is also forming his argument on shaky foundations for what it would take to form a living pagan religion under his view:

To get a fully revived paganism in contemporary America, that’s what would have to happen again — the philosophers of pantheism and civil religion would need to build a religious bridge to the New Agers and neo-pagans, and together they would need to create a more fully realized cult of the immanent divine, an actual way to worship, not just to appreciate, the pantheistic order they discern.

His point here is wrong.  Pagans and polytheists do not need pantheists or outside civil religionists.  We have our own philosophers, and for those who wish to engage in civil religions there are ample examples to follow.  We need not partner with pantheists or civil religionists to create a fully realized cult of the immanent divine because we possess all the tools, ability, and functions to do so within our own religions.  We already have everything Douthat is pointing out here.

Likewise, Tejeda-Moreno is wrong.

Whether we are discussing Witchcraft, Heathenry, or any other practice broadly described as Pagan, individuals are not turning away from organized faiths; they are turning toward something more meaningful to them. Pagans are re-wilding their faith interactions to the immanent and the spiritual, and few things are more dangerous to what is “organized” than what is “wild”.

Individuals are turning away from monotheist religions, not organized ones.  They are turning towards something more meaningful to them, that is true, but it is not something that is not organized, only organized in a different fashion.  We are re-wilding our religions insofar as our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are immanently intertwined with the development of our religions.  What most who are coming into “Witchcraft, Heathenry, or any other practice broadly described as Pagan” are coming into is one where the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are immanent and transcendent, not bound by us, our morality, our politics, or our views.  The Gods are the Gods, Their own, and we do not control Them.  The Ancestors are the Ancestors, Their own, and we do not control Them.  The spirits are the spirits, Their own, and we do not control Them.

It is not us who are re-wilding our religions.  If our religions are wild it is because the Holy Powers are not in our control.  We talk with our Holy Powers, we seek Their guidance, and whether through divination, omens, inspiration, or other means They make Their desires and wills known.  This does not mean we have no bearing on our religion.  We do, because it is in relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that our religions are woven.  We can disagree with our Holy Powers, negotiate, ask, work with Them to different ends.  We can also agree with our Holy Powers, obey, negotiate, ask, do the work we are given.  We can have times where it is hard to know what They want, times where our lives are fallow, times where we are sure of what They want, and times where our lives are so full we are fit to burst.  These are lived relationships.

Ultimately, Mr. Douthat argues that the promises of Paganism are vacant. The rituals and prayers lack meaning and effect: “I don’t know how many of the witches who publicly hexed Brett Kavanaugh really expected it to work,” he writes. The same sentiment could be shared for those followers of the Christian god who prayed for hurricanes to turn away from the United States toward Mexico.

I think that this is fair on both sides.  So long as we are not living solid in our relationships with the Holy Powers, then I agree that “all the rituals and prayers lack meaning and effect”.  Without prayers bound in meaning, in relationship with our Holy Powers, they are merely words.  Perhaps the only effect they can carry is offense or disinterest. Without rituals made in relationship with our Holy Powers with clarity, discipline, and skill, it is so much empty action.  Without magic rooted in our worldviews crafted with discipline, and skill, again, it is empty action.

Rather than seeing, as Tejeda-Moreno does, that Douthat feels entitled to an explanation from Pagans and polytheists, I see that Douthat has fear of what we may bring to the table:

Until then, those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it — and who have a certain fear of what more immanent spirits have to offer us — should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.

I agree with Tejeda-Moreno that Douthat “avoids the obvious remedy to his dilemma” which, for monotheists is that they are not “living up to their origins, whether those be the promise of salvation, submission, or, even more simply, love.”  I also think it is more complex than Tejeda-Moreno’s conclusion.  The problem with monotheist religions and philosophies derived from them is they seek to eliminate all others.  Those who espouse arguments like the ‘evolution of religion’ or the ‘Kingdom of God’ wants its particular religion (or lack thereof) to get to the top so it can install its hegemony over all the others beneath it.  Paganism is not the boogeyman here, but neither is hypocrisy.

What is sitting in the background of monotheist religions is that when any attains power it then seeks to crush or convert any other religion.  Calls to the faithful to evangelize, to destroy the Pagans, to convert the masses of the world are still being made.  As Douthat says:

Until then, those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it — and who have a certain fear of what more immanent spirits have to offer us — should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.

What Douthat is afraid of is that we are going to be living in a post-Christian world and takes explicit comfort that a successor is not fully-formed to it yet.  After all, look at what the Christians did to the non-believers.  Why wouldn’t a Christian, having an understanding of the kinds of destruction such things brought, not be afraid of such things being brought down on them?  What Douthat and monotheists like him are afraid of is not just irrelevance, but that non-monotheist religions will make inroads, take up different power in different ways, and offer better futures than the one they’ve had the last two thousand or so years to build.  Their hegemony is slipping bit by bit, year by year.  They fear the loss of power.  They are afraid the futures we face without the hegemony of their religions and philosophies on our necks.  They are afraid of our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.

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A Post for Newcomers to Polytheism

May 8, 2016 4 comments

There’s a great deal of needed dialogue going on in various polytheist, animist, Pagan, and associated communities right now.  I have been part of this, on and off, and while I do deeply feel these things are necessary, I also think that reaching out to the folks coming into this fresh, or those looking at coming back to the polytheist, animist, and Pagan communities are needed as well.  I have not seen a post like this make the go-arounds in a long while, at least on WordPress, so this post is made with these folks in mind.

What is polytheism?

Polytheism is defined by OxfordDictionaries.com as “The belief in or worship of more than one god”.  That is it, in a nutshell.  Most polytheists I know, and those I count among my co-religionists define polytheism in this manner.  This is because polytheism, as a word, describes a worldview and theological understanding, rather than a religion in and of itself.  A polytheist religion would be Northern Tradition Paganism, or any one of a number of Heathen religions.  Polytheists are those, then, that believe in or worship more than one God.

The polytheist religions I know of, especially those I am part of, hold that the world itself, as well as most things, are ensouled in some fashion, and/or are in part imbued with the numinous.  In this, most polytheists are, in some fashion, animists.  Animism is “The attribution of a living soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena” and/or “The belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe“.  Like polytheism, animism is a theological position and worldview.

Polytheism as a word says nothing about the Gods one worships, what kinds of practices are accepted practice within a polytheist community, nor how one is expected to conduct oneself in or out of that community.  All these things are determined by religious communities that are polytheist.

What makes up a polytheist worldview?

Cosmology and relationships.  This may seem fairly simple, but when you take a look at the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, it’s far from it.

In these religions the cosmology, “An account or theory of the origin of the universe“, informs a deep amount of how the religion is structured and the place of the people within it.  The creation story alone is a wealth of information, namely on who created what, and where things came from.  Aesir, Vanir, and Jotnar are described as discrete categories of Beings in the creation story, and form different tribes that intermarry on occasion, and war on others.  So too, Alfar (Elves) and Dvergar (Dwarves) are discrete categories of Beings.  The Dead are as well.  Even within our own Ancestors, the categories of Disir and Alfar/Väter (I use Väter, the German word for “Fathers” to differentiate between the Elves and powerful male Ancestors) differentiate the powerful female and male Ancestors from the rest of our Ancestors.  One of the lessons one gains from reading or hearing the creation story is that there are discrete categories of Beings, and They exist in hierarchy to one another and between each other.

In reading or listening to the creation story and others from these religions, it is understood that relationships form between the Aesir, Vanir, Jotnar, Alfar, Dvergar, and ourselves cooperatively as well as hierarchically.  The Aesir and Vanir war before peace and cooperation ensues, and an exchange of hostages occurs.  Likewise, there are tribes of Jotnar who make continuous war on the Aesir, those who do not, and Jotnar who join the Aesir by assertion of rights as with Skaði, or with Vanic Gods by marriage, as with Gerða and Freyr.  There are Jotnar who do not war on the Aesir, but keep to Themselves just as not all the Aesir war with Jotnar.  In other words, there are a great many kinds of relationships that exist between these various Beings.

If we take these stories as examples, there are a great many relationships we can maintain with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir (spirits).  Part of how this is done is by understanding our place within the cosmology.

Our understanding of where we are in the Worlds means a great deal to the religions we are part of.  It places us in how we relate to all things.  Jörð, and Nerthus, for instance, place us into direct relationship with the Earth beneath our feet as a/many Goddess(es).

What makes this even more interesting, in my view, is that because I am a polytheist, I accept a great many more Gods of the Earth than just one, including not only female Gods like Jörð, but male Gods such as the Egyptian God Geb, and others of differing/no genders, sexes, etc.  This does not create competition for this role of being a God/Goddess of the Earth, but more that They are in the same wheelhouse.  It need not be an either/or idea.

Rather, I look at it as an “and/and” notion that there are many Gods of the Earth Itself.  Sometimes I understand Jörð as the Earth Itself, and other times She is a local Earth Goddess.  Cosmology places us, and relationships form from this understanding of where we are and how we relate to the Worlds around us.  The particulars of how these relationships are shaped, what ways they develop or fade, and how things shake out otherwise depend on the religion(s) one is part of and how the relationships themselves go.

Polytheism is a foundation upon which the worldviews polytheist religions rest and build from.  Alone, it only asserts that a person holds belief in or worships Gods.  Everything else, from the relationships one forms with what Gods, clear on down to what kind of things are taboo, derive from the polytheist religion one is part of and are communal and individual.  In the end, the leaders one follows, or lacks, entirely depends on whether or not a person joins a community in the first place.  This acceptance or denial of joining a community will, in turn, impact the relationships that one maintains with the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits of one’s religion.  This does not make these choices one makes right or wrong.  It makes them choices that carry consequences.  If one rejects belonging to a community it impacts one’s relationships with the Gods just as belonging to one would, though in different ways.  My relationships have definitely changed with the Gods I worshiped before and after I helped establish my local Northern Tradition/Heathen Kindred. Many vaettir I had worked only a little before became quite vocal in my life.  It takes all kinds to make a Kindred.

Polytheism really does take all kinds.  There are polytheists who never will be part of a community, and others for whom their community is intimately bound up in their life.  There are polytheists who have never had a powerful spiritual experience and never will, and others for whom there’s a quality of ‘They never shut up’ to their lives.  There are polytheists who are stay at home parents, and others who have absolutely no aspirations to be parents.  There are those who work in low-wage jobs as well as high.  There are polytheists on every part of the political spectrum.  In the end, the meaningful question in regards to polytheism is, “Do you worship or believe in the Gods?”

First Steps

So now that you have a rough idea of how polytheism works, what about first steps into being a polytheist?  When I began teaching the Northern Tradition Study Group in my area this is how we started out.

  1. Determine the religion you will be focusing on.

    This step is probably the most important.  When we organized the NT Study Group it was because there was enough people who had expressed interest in such a group.  Otherwise, folks were already developing relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of the Northern Tradition and Heathen religions alongside other religious and spiritual interests.  Bringing the group together under a single religious focus in Northern Tradition and Heathen polytheism brought a lot of advantages with it.  Having a single religious focus provides a shared lexicon and a deep amount of focus.  Having a single religious focus helps develop an understanding of the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits of the religion one is working with, and develops the relationships within the framework of that religion.  It also helps develop context for exploring and understanding spiritual relationships outside of this religion, giving a solid ground for the newcomer to put their weight down on.

    I would recommend that anyone new to polytheism or animism pick a single religious path to focus on for at least a year.  Even if you find that religion is not the one you end up staying with after that period of time it can provide good contexts and understanding for where you want to go or are meant to go from there.

  2.  Gather resources and do your research.

    This means tapping resources both written and from people, especially if you have folks in your area actively involved in the religion you want to join.  One of the sources I recommend at this stage is Spiritual Protection by Sophie Reicher.  The idea here is to develop spiritual hygiene and protection techniques so good habits are made early.  It also helps to separate out genuine religious and/or mystic experiences from sock puppets by doing the internal work early in the journey by developing methods of discernment early.  The early research may be a source of deep exploration, or a reference point.  It will depend on one’s personal journey with the Holy Powers, but at the least it gives everyone, especially if you’re doing this with a group, some mutual starting points to look at and refer back to.

    This is the step in the formation of the group where I provided a list of books for folks to look at, with explanations for why.  It is also the step where I recommend people talk to others in the community, even those who religious exploration will be solitary, because if you get a question you do not have the answer to you will be able to talk with others on it.  This may also be a good time to figure out some good diviners in your communities to talk with when the need arises.

  3. Determine your initial focus.

    I put it this way because for some people the ‘in’ to polytheism is through the Gods, others the Ancestors, and others the vaettir.  Determining Who you will be focusing on and developing your initial relationships with will help determine how your religious focus fleshes out in the following sections, what resources you will find of use, and in what ways you can best develop your religious work.  Things may not stay this way, but it will help provide some of that foundation I mentioned in part 1 above.

  4. Do regular religious work and ritual.

    When we started I recommended folks take 5-10 minutes a day of dedicated time and go from there.  Some folks’ lives are incredibly busy and setting aside even this amount of time can be hard, whereas for others setting aside this regular time is a source of orientation in their lives.  This is the heart and soul of any religious tradition.  Regular devotional work, even if it is a few moments of prayers with an offering of water, is powerful work, and builds on itself over time.

    I personally recommend anyone interested in polytheism and/or animism develop a spiritual practice with their Ancestors.  If the last generation or two has problems for you, I would recommend connecting with Ancestors further back, and talking to an Ancestor worker and/or diviner as you need guidance.

  5. Refine your resources, practices, focus, and so on as needed.

    I am not the same person I was when I became a Pagan in 2004.  In that time my religious focus has changed quite heavily, as has my roles in my communities.  Each person’s refinement might be different.  When I first began researching the Egyptian Gods I started out researching the culture and the Gods in general.  As my relationship with Anpu grew, I did a lot more research specifically into cities, festivals, and cultus around Him.  While I was doing this, I was developing my relationship with Anpu, doing regular offerings and rituals on a regular basis.  As things went on, I would do divination, or in some ways get direct messages such as through direct contact, omens, and other forms of communication between us.  I would then update my religious practices and views as these came up and were accepted.  This helped sustain me in the religion for the three years I was strictly a Kemetic polytheist.  I went through a similar process with Odin when I became a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen, and it has sustained me, and those I have taught, ever since.

Relationship and Reciprocity

At the end of the day polytheism and animism are both based in relationships, and these relationships are based in reciprocity.  What we do in reciprocity changes on our circumstances and the needs and desires of those we share in our relationships with.  These relationships do come with baseline right belief, or orthodoxy. As far as polytheism itself goes that means you believe in or worship the Gods, whereas individual ptolytheist religions have their own orthodoxies that develop off from this understanding.  The understanding of right action of polytheism itself, the orthopraxy, requires baseline respect for Them and the reciprocity that sustains that relationship.  As with orthodoxy, polytheist religions will have their orthopraxy, and these will be dependent on so many contexts I could easily make hosts of posts about them.

The way in which a single person’s life could change for these relationships and be changed by them are incredibly diverse.  It is my hope that as more people become or are raised polytheist that the need for these sorts of general polytheist guideline posts becomes less relevant.  I hope to see all the polytheist religions respond to the needs of their individual communities and develop well.  It is my prayer that, so long as these posts are needed, that this one and others like it help those who find it.  May the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir bless the work before us.

A Response to The Uncomfortable Mirror

April 2, 2016 47 comments

Since the posting of the article Confronting the New Right on Gods & Radicals, there has been quite a lot of writing going on in response to it.  When I first came across it, I was going to weigh in on it.  Then, I caught the flu my son had just gotten over, and in my usual fashion when I get sick, it took me down hard for a few days.  I watched from the sidelines as conversations unfolded, and I could not help but think: good.  We need to talk.  We need to weigh things and figure out where we stand on things.

Rather than seeing these recent developments as portents of doom for the polytheist communities, or for various folks in the Pagan communities, I see these as part of a larger unfolding within these communities.

“Paganism in general—and apparently Devotional and Reconstructionist Polytheism in particular—have been long overdue for a reckoning.”

When I read these words that invoke a reckoning, from Rhyd Wildermuth’s post on Patheos, The Uncomfortable Mirror, particularly from someone who identifies as a bard, that not only gives me pause, but I am urged to ask
“What is this bard calling for, and why this word?  What kind of reckoning is he calling for?”

The use of words is a powerful thing.  The word polytheism is a word that contains a worldview within it.  All the religions within the various polytheist communities take their basic understanding of who they are, what they are, and where their religion starts from this word.

The use of words is a powerful thing.  The use of words like devotion, for instance, is one that comes up quite a lot in discussion in Pagan and polytheist circles.  It has in Wildermuth’s piece, but how he uses it bothers me.  He uses both ‘relational’ and ‘devotional’ as words for identification within polytheism.  The reason why this use bothers me is that polytheism is devotional in nature.  Devotional means “Of or used in religious worship”.  Since polytheism is “The belief in or worship of more than one god” this division in language makes little sense, as worship requires devotional work, offerings, etc. in order to be of or used in religious worship. A religious regard for the Gods renders us in a relationship with the Gods.  There is no point to how Rhyd Wildermuth uses ‘devotional’ and ‘relational’, especially in quotes, because without these things as being part of polytheist religion and polytheism itself, you do not have belief or worship because there is no religious regard for the Gods, and thus, no relationship with or to Them, except perhaps as a rhetorical device.  Why one would try to divorce devotion and relationality from the Gods makes no sense to me, especially since this is the very ground of polytheism itself.

The problem with Wildermuth stating that his post, Confronting the New Right, was a resource supplement to Shane Burley’s article Fascism Against Time, is that nowhere in the original draft of the piece does Rhyd identify himself, the purpose of the article, or that it is to be an information page on the New Right.  As someone more predisposed towards Wildermuth’s left views, and having read the article in question, I found myself consistently simply not seeing what he insists is there in the original article in his latest write up on it, The Uncomfortable Mirror, in which he tries to give this clarification.  Had he been clear and upfront in his presentation this incredibly long post would never have been needed.  However, I made no connection between Confronting the New Right and Fascism Against Time.  It was not until I read this latest post by Wildermuth that I realized there was supposed to have been a connection!

Part of the issue, especially not being part of anarchist, Marxist, or far-left circles myself, is that the article itself provides little understanding of what the New Right itself is.  In this, it fails as a resource.  I need to know why the right alone, or conservatism alone, is being singled out for this.  Why is the right alone being taken to task on this, and what alternatives does the left offer?  What is actually wrong with being on the right, politically?

Stating that your piece draws no equivalency while people are actively telling you that they are seeing you draw them in this way is either tone-deaf or actively not listening to the critiques you are getting on this piece.  Repeating your disclaimer from the section in question is not actually helping.  We have eyes.  If folks are not getting it, even if you repeat it three times, the problem may not be with the reader, but with the article.  Even in the most charitable reading I gave it, I still was getting quite a bit of false equivocation between the polytheist groups Wildermuth mentioned, the New Right, and fascist ideology.  Not only is this unhelpful, but repeating yourself when folks are blatantly telling you that you’re not communicating effectively is not accepting criticism, nor responding effectively to it.  If this is what Wildermuth views as an acceptable response to criticism, it reads as doubling down on the rhetoric he has already employed, and pushing the Pagan and polytheist communities to this ‘reckoning’.

Here is one of the keys, though, where The Uncomfortable Mirror really makes me sit back.
Wildermuth freely admits that:
“Do I put my politics first? I don’t actually know what that means. Do I favor political ideology over what the gods say to me? Do I favor political action over spiritual activities? This is not a question I can answer, because in my world, they inform each other and are inextricably linked. My gods help me understand my relations to politics, and my politics helps me understand my relationship with my gods. There is no wall between them for me.”

So…wait.  If a fascist said this exact same line wouldn’t he be criticizing them for hijacking polytheism in favor of the New Right?  Why is Rhyd’s view of this suddenly preferential to a New Right view?  He glosses right over this point and heads into the next one, but this bears some serious looking at.

Just because I may have some sympathies with Wildermuth’s views does not mean he is above reproach here.  I believe polytheism needs to be open to all political viewpoints even if its individual communities are not.  Polytheism and polytheist communities are two different things.  He says that both Beckett and Krasskova admit “the possibility that political views might shape beliefs and practice.”  Meaning, this shapes their beliefs of polytheism and their practice of polytheism.  However, it does not change polytheism for polytheists as a whole.  Polytheism is, and remains, the worship or belief in many Gods whatever the ideology, politics, etc. of the individual polytheist and/or polytheist communities they are involved in.

Being unable to differentiate whether or not you are putting your politics before your Gods, or that your politics are so intertwined with your Gods that they are inseparable is something he takes Galina to task for in the very next paragraph, and calls her out directly for.  The problem with doing so, in my view, is that in the Confronting the New Right piece he blatantly says that “The New Right is difficult to define precisely, which has been one of their greatest strengths. But here are some core ideas that are common in most New Right thinkers”.  He’s going to take someone to task for having ideas that align with people he does not agree with.   He is critiquing a group of people for intertwining their politics with religion, while intertwining his politics with his religion.   That he can actually point to Krasskova’s views and say “Look, these are New Right!” means that she and others are being open about their politics.  It is also true that she is being open and forthright with where her religious views take her, including tribalism, hierarchy, eschewing to tradition, and caring for how these things unfold rather than her personal interests.

“Is there a leftist infiltration of Polytheism? And am I—and the writers of Gods&Radicals—leading it? Or did I, by gathering information about the New Right hold an uncomfortable mirror up to a tradition I am a part of? Have I violated sacred traditions, or merely revealed their political aspects?
While I and the writers of Gods&Radicals are quite open about our political views and how they relate to our practices and beliefs, it might be a good time for others to consider being more open about this, too.”

Rather than there being a leftist infiltration of polytheism, I see that this piece is a political litmus test that is being put on polytheism.  So yes, in this sense, he and the writers of Gods & Radicals are leading this.  He gathered information, poorly laid it out, and called a cracked surface a mirror.  He did not violate sacred traditions, but spent a lot of digital ink on why those he is aligned with are superior to the communities he points out in his piece, that the New Right is a threat to polytheist communities and is, itself infiltrating polytheist groups while not actually effectively talking about why the New Right is the threat he makes them out to be.

A good chunk of the issue I had with Wildermuth’s Confronting the New Right had to do with the poor definitions I found in it.  Not being inside left academia or thought, especially that of anarchism or Marxism, I found there were a lot of assumptions being made and nowhere near enough bread crumbs to find my way to where Wildermuth was making his assertions to begin with on the New Right.

The definition of fascism from OxfordDictionaries.com is: “An authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization.”  Authoritarian is defined as “Favouring or enforcing strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom”.  Nationalistic is defined as: “Having strong patriotic feelings, especially a belief in the superiority of one’s own country over others”.

One of many problems with Wildermuth’s piece is that what he is pointing out here has less to do with these definitions and more to do with the general use of the term, as pointed out in the same source: “(In general use) extreme right-wing, authoritarian, or intolerant views or practices: this is yet another example of health fascism in action”.  He also does not provide context nor definition for what traditionalism is, nor tribalism, nor does he provide much else in terms of context or definition for the other terms.

The problem is not that Wildermuth is pointing out that the New Right is seeking inroads into Pagan religions, polytheist religions, and the like, but that he provides little-to-no-context within this post for it, nor does he provide any effective means of sussing out the working definitions he has here before diving into what the New Right stands for.  A large part of the dismay and anger has erupted directly from this in both articles, and the section titled ‘What is the New Right’s Influence on Paganism?’ in Confronting the New Right.

If the New Right is difficult to define, how much harder will it be for those who are not in leftist, Marxist, or other political groupings to understand where he is coming from?  Read from the outside looking in, much of what he has written in Confronting the New Right does not read like an effective guide, so much a document meant to damn certain ways of doing things while providing a few sentences to the notion of everyone being free to go their own way.

Wildermuth says in regards to the Red Scare and witch trials that, “In both cases, there was a political agency obscured by the hysteria and scapegoating. The Red Scare significantly reduced the influence of leftist critique in the United States at the same time that it strengthened the power of Capitalists and the State against workers.”

I wonder if he understand that by adopting a lot of these stances and putting political litmus tests like these on polytheism in the manner he has done, he is actually playing in the us vs. them politics of left vs. right, and is slowly eroding support, even from those on the left.  Even if he is actively resisting putting political litmus tests on polytheism, that folks cannot see that, and in fact are seeing the opposite is a problem.

Then I read this:
“Paganism in general—and apparently Devotional and Reconstructionist Polytheism in particular—have been long overdue for a reckoning.” [Emphasis mine.]

Whoa what?  Apparently to whom?  What kind of reckoning?
I first came across this point in detail when I read The Lettuce Man’s A Thought on the Recent Radical Brouhaha, and it’s gnawed at me since I read it.  It still does.  Were the right to use this rhetoric would there not be worry -with reason?  Why not so with the left?

By what right or direction does Wildermuth make this judgment call to bring polytheists to a reckoning, and who is he to make it?

This statement on dialogue is absolutely chilling, and it’s implications are of deep concern.  This is from someone who identifies as a bard, and bards, like skalds, wield words with spiritual impact and power.  A reckoning is “the action or process of calculating or estimating something” and “the avenging or punishing of past mistakes or misdeeds”.  The use of his words here most definitely point at the latter definition than the former.  So, in what way would Wildermuth avenge the ‘apparent’ lacks he sees within their communities?  Who or what he is avenging?  If not avenging, how will he, or anyone who takes him up in this regard, judge these communities, and mete out punishment?  How could he not expect resistance to this overstep?

Wildermuth goes on to say: “Tribalism, Sacred Kingship, Traditionalism, natural hierarchies (specifically, ‘warrior/priest/cultivator’), and anti-egalitarian notions are all crucial aspects of New Right ideology”.

Again, he does not define these things.  He does not give clear, useful definitions of what these mean to New Right ideology.  Rather, he asks the rhetorical question “What is really the difference between the Fascism of Augustus Sol Invictus, or New Right ideology of Stephen McNallen and Alain de Benoist, and the rest of polytheist belief?” and then launches into the aforementioned quote.  He links these ideas, and those of us who hold some or many of these ideas together, giving no context.  It’s a good rhetorical move, but it does not do anything to bring in trust from those of us sitting giving the side-eye to this whole thing.

For a long time I have identified as left in America because of my belief in and understanding of human rights, my view of the role of government, and how people should be left alone to live their lives with full rights and choice available to them regardless of ethnicity, skin color, creed, gender identity, sexuality, etc.  Increasingly, especially with works like this, I am wondering if there is a place for folks like me.  I am feeling alienated more and more by the political system, and then the activists for folks on both ends of the spectrum.  I am feeling more and more ‘cut loose’, as perhaps the best term for where I am right now, because of the things unfolding as they have been.

The left/right divide is increasingly becoming a point of contention without much of a point for me.  At this juncture, I am caring less and less where you are in the political divide, and caring more about “Are you effective at helping us overcome obstacles in our communities?”  This does not mean I’ll just open my arms up to fascists, racists, or the like, but, at least in American politics, I am only 30 and getting pretty quickly burnt out on this bullshit.  I have a limited amount of time in my life that I am not devoting to a job (now two), raising my family, or helping my tribal religious community, and other religious communities to which I am bound.  If I cannot see a political ideology actively contributing to my family, my tribe, or my larger communities I do not have a lot of time or energy left to engage it.

Going back to the quote, I want to dig into some other issues I had with it:
“Tribalism, Sacred Kingship, Traditionalism, natural hierarchies (specifically, ‘warrior/priest/cultivator’), and anti-egalitarian notions are all crucial aspects of New Right ideology”

Tribalism is “The state or fact of being organized in a tribe or tribes.”  A tribe is “A social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader”.  Sacred kingship is an active factor in many polytheist religions, including mine, and many of our Gods are, Themselves, sovereigns in Their own rights.  Traditionalism is “The upholding or maintenance of tradition, especially so as to resist change.”  I’ve already said my piece elsewhere in my writing (such as here and here) on why I find hierarchy useful and good to uphold, and not so with egalitarianism as an organizational tool while still believing in equal rights and protections for people.

Tribalism, sacred kingship, traditionalism, and hierarchy are all, in some way, part of the polytheist religion I am part of.
Why would I let these go at all?

Wildermuth asks this:

“There are some deeply difficult questions that we need to ask. Do the gods want us to return to ‘tribal’ societies, do the gods demand we war against Muslims and Atheists and Leftists, do the gods demand we institute strict hierarchies and authority-relationships between priests and the rest of us?”

First, these are all separate questions.  I think that for some of us returning to a tribal society is precisely what the Gods want us to do, while this is not what the Gods want for others.  Since I’m not the Gods I’m not going to guess Their minds on this, and I trust Their worshippers have the sense or ability to figure out Their views on this on their own, and make their own choice in response.

Placing this together with “do the gods demand we war against Muslims and Atheists and Leftists” is not a good rhetorical trick, since returning to a tribal society has nothing to do with warring on Muslims and Atheists and Leftists.  It does not follow that returning to a tribal society means we’ll be making war on Muslims, Atheists, Leftists, or our other neighbors.

For the last question “do the gods demand we institute strict hierarchies and authority-relationships between priests and the rest of us?” the answer, for at least some of us, is yes.

That ‘rest of us’ though, who the priests serve, is pretty key, and pretending that a priest of one religion serves everyone is foolish at best.  Catholics have strict hierarchies and authority-relationships between laity and the priests, and between the priests and those of the ecclesiastical authority.  They enter into these relationships with Catholics and sometimes other Christians.  They do not serve me specifically as a Catholic because I am not one.  They cannot institute that strict hierarchy on me.

I have no desire to institute the hierarchy of my religion on folks unwilling to take part in them.  If you do not want to have a strict hierarchy in your religion then don’t belong to one that has one.  If you do not believe there should be authority-relationships between priests and the communities they serve, well, I’m not sure what kind of priests you want, but good luck to you.  You’ll probably not be served by me, then, because if you’re coming to me as a priest of Odin asking for my help, say, in what to give Him an offering and then completely discount what I have to say, there’s not much incentive for me to keep helping you.

The very last bit Rhyd leaves us with though, bears some looking at:
“And did those gods happen to notice those are the same ideas of the New Right?”

If They did….do They give that big of a damn?  Perhaps it is about what ideas work rather than where they are politically aligned.  Maybe They prefer the New Right vs. the Left, or vice versa, and you need to consider your allegiances here.

“Perhaps some gods do want that, but that leads us to another question:
Do we want that?”

Well, that really depends on how we view things then, doesn’t it?  What matters the most, as polytheists, to us?  Our ideology and politics, or our relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir?  At some point, we will have to decide which view is most important: our own, or that of our Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir.  I would say that if you do not want what the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir you are dedicated to want, then it is you that needs to adjust your thinking.

Are there people I disagree with religiously and/or politically that I still venerate?  Hell yes.  For instance, the Catholics in my family who hold onto Their religion beyond death and still keep up a relationship with me.  I have no interest in converting, but if saying the Psalms makes Them happy and is taken in the respect it is meant, as an act of offering and service to Them, then I will do so.  It is not about my personal comfort here, because my personal comfort here would probably be to offer Them water, mead, or some other form of food, and praise Them in the religious manner I am most comfortable with.  This gets into host and guest, Gebo and similar kinds of considerations, though.  Do I do what I am most aligned with personally, or what I ought to do as a good host in my religion in relation to my Ancestors?

How we answer these questions determines whether we are acting out of our own interests, or actually engaging with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir on Their terms and in respect with Them. It determines how we live our polytheist lives, how we pass on our ways to the next generation, and what place these things take in our lives individually and communally, in our lives and intergenerationally.   The answers to these questions determines the kinds of communities we will build and maintain so that future generations do not have to take on the struggles we did.  It determines what we leave to those that follow after us.

Where I Stand: Holding Tradition

November 10, 2015 1 comment

The fact of the matter is, that almost no one I disagree with will ever come into contact with me.  So why am I raising these issues at all?  Why write about holiness, the sacred, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, etc. for a larger polytheist audience?

I am a Universalist-Tribalist Heathen, which means that I support anyone coming to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir into the Northern Tradition and Heathenry regardless of background, and that, on-the-whole, I’m more concerned with what happens to my little group of people and my little corner of the Northern Tradition and Heathenry.  My hamingja, and much of my personal concerns, are tied up with these people who are family to me.  That doesn’t mean that the wider Northern Tradition, Heathen, and polytheist communities don’t mean anything to me, but they are lower on the list, and most of them are not in my innangarð.

Yet, everything I write about here has come up in some fashion, whether it has been in working with folks who come for work, divination, or questions, interacting with folks at conventions, students, etc.  In some part I’m writing here so that there are polytheists out here saying “This is how I see it, and this is why this makes sense to me.” or “I disagree with this, and this is why.”  I would rather there not be an illusion of conformity or acceptance of an idea when there is not, especially when it is something I have had to talk about time and again with non-Pagans and Pagans alike, i.e. not all Odin-worshipers are racist, not all Pagans believe x, y, or z, there are some concrete beliefs to being a polytheist, and so on.

When I get into more heated discussions with folks in the larger Pagan communities, I do this in no small part because I am a Northern Tradition Pagan and a Heathen, and feel that my views and that of my co-religionists need to be presented.  This feeling is pronounced because I am a priest and shaman.  This means as much as I am a boundary crosser and an ambassador, helping folks to connect with our Gods, their Ancestors, and the vaettir, it is also my duty to present my religions straightforward, and present defense of the religion if needed, being a boundary keeper.

The questions of “Can’t the Gods defend Themselves?  Can’t They make Their displeasure known?” eventually do come up and need to be tackled.

Sure.  Our Gods are not helpless by any stretch, but that puts the full responsibility of keeping our traditions on the Gods, and not, as it should be, on ourselves.  It’s not about the Gods being able to defend this or that concept.  It is about the duty being on us, as worshipers, spiritual specialists, and laypeople, to engage in our religion in a way that is respectful, and keep our religious boundaries, communities, terminology, and connected ideas healthy.

I work with the idea of a teacup frequently as a container of ideas, the tea being the meaning of things and the teacup the word itself as a container of meaning.  The Gods I will liken to the kettle, water, and the leaves/herbs, the source of the tea itself.  They are poured into the teapot of religion to brew and be held, a defined form that gives the ability to transfer this meaning a bit more safe from being burned, yet still keep warmth, which we pour into our cups.  Some folks go right for the kettle and fill their cup right then and there.  You still get tea, but eventually, if you’re going to drink tea without burning yourself, it goes into a cup or you wait for the kettle to cool so you can drink straight from it.

I don’t imagine I will ever agree with the idea, let alone the acceptance of atheist Paganism in the Pagan community, but really, that’s not my call to make.  I’m not the Circle Police or the Pagan Police.  As much as people deride folks like Galina Krasskova, Tess Dawson, Sannion, and myself as part of the Piety Posse, do you folks honestly think I have any pull with folks who do not believe in Gods or theistic Pagans who accept atheist Pagan theological views as just as valid as their own?  I speak out because I feel the need to speak out, but I hold no illusions that my words hold any more sway than what others give them.  I certainly can’t stop you, but I also do not have to accept your views.  I hold the view of a polytheist, one in which the Gods are real, have agency and Being, and are not constructs/archetypes/etc. of human un/consciousness.  There’s nothing in atheism for me to find in common ground, religiously speaking.  We can meet at any number of other points, but I very-much doubt this is a place where we will find common ground, as the very grounding of our views is different in very powerful ways.  Further, any attempt by an atheist to co-opt religious language out of its meanings will not further dialogue with me at all.

I find myself on the opposite side of folks like John Halstead and B.T. Newburg more and more in no small part because the aesthetics of the religious communities I have called home for the last 11 years are being sought out by atheist Pagans, but not the substance.  The language which identifies me as a person within a set of religious communities and/or within a communal identity is being intentionally separated from the primary means by which that identifier is constructed: religious identity with concrete meaning in regards to belief in and worship of Gods.

My views are not simply matters of disagreement, but really, they are matters of course.  The course of logic that constructs my religious identity flows from the creation story of the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, flows from the cosmology, and flows from the Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen worldview, the worldview I live within.  These things are essential to the construction of the identity I have as a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen.  When the meaning of words like sacred, holiness, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and so on are affected, the meaning of my identifiers and associated communities are affected.  It’s about more than just me, though: these are part and parcel of how any religious community defines itself.  So not only am I personally invested to see that sacred, holiness, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and other words with religious meaning stay invested with that meaning, and how that plays out in my own life, I am also invested in how these words stay invested with meaning within my religious community, and how these words come to define and structure things within the Northern Tradition and Heathen communities.

Here is where I stand: as a Universalist-Tribalist Heathen, I have primary concern for the those within my innangarð, but that does not mean I ignore the things or people who are utgarð to my personal or more wider communities.  While my hamingja is not tied with those outside of my innangarð, it would be a disservice to the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, and my personal communities within them, to not speak out on the things I have.  It would be a disservice to fellow polytheists, too.  I hold the traditions I am within, as does everyone who is within these traditions.  Each person needs to decide for themselves whether it is incumbent on them to speak up, out, or to hold silence.  For myself, given the roles of shaman and priest that I serve in my communities, as an ambassador, boundary-crosser, and boundary-keeper, I find myself being called to speak more often than I am to be silent.

Defining Terms and Setting Boundaries

June 18, 2013 18 comments

In reading a good deal of blog posts I am in agreement that part of the core problem of communication between different Pagan traditions and religions is that there is a sloppy use of words.  To help with this I first list the dictionary definition from the online Oxford English Dictionary as a starting point for discussion.  Then I will dig into the words and what they mean from my perspective if I have any perspective to add.  From there, I’ll go into where I see boundary lines in Paganism, and ask questions I find there.

Polytheism: the belief in or worship of more than one god.

This is pretty straightforward.  Each polytheist relates to the many Gods in a number of ways, some as son or daughter, some as servant, some as a worshiper, or a combination of these or something beyond this simple breakdown.

Monotheism: the doctrine or belief that there is only one God.

Atheism: disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

Agnosticism: a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God.

Henotheism: adherence to one particular god out of several, especially by a family, tribe, or other group.

This is a term I came across during my Religious Studies core courses, and it came up again in a Hinduism course.  It is a term rooted in polytheism in that it recognizes many Gods and worships only one.  Some bhakti worshipers are henotheists, and some Pagans devoted to one God are henotheist.  For instance, a Lokian may be a henotheist in that they believe in many Gods as Beings unto Themselves but only worship Loki.

Pantheism: a doctrine which identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God.

Panentheism: the belief or doctrine that God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it.

Monism: a theory or doctrine that denies the existence of a distinction or duality in a particular sphere, such as that between matter and mind, or God and the world.  The doctrine that only one supreme being exists.

Monism started off as a philosophical term and used in philosophy by Christian von Wolff which purported there is a unity to all thing, lacking a mind/body divide.  Religiously speaking the term monism has been used to mean that there is no divide between ourselves and God/the Gods.  So a person who believes we ‘are all part of the body of God’ or ‘we are all part of the Goddess’ is a monist.

Humanism: a rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.

Naturalistic: the philosophical belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted.

Rationalism: the practice or principle of basing opinions and actions on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response.

Archetype Psychoanalysis (in Jungian theory) a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.

Pagan: a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions.

Neopagan: a modern religious movement which seeks to incorporate beliefs or ritual practices from traditions outside the main world religions, especially those of pre-Christian Europe and North America.

Most of these definitions are fairly straightforward.  A polytheist is one who believes in and may worship one or more Gods.  A monotheist is one who believes there is a single God.  Henotheists believe in many Gods and worship just one of Them.

When I see these terms in this context it boggles my mind how archetypes are supposed to work in Paganism.  Archetypes are essential symbol sets we are supposed to have inherited from the Collective Unconscious.  While they may be full of meaning they are, boiled down, symbols, not Gods.  They are reflection of psyche rather than inputs from the Gods Themselves.  That said, I do not understand how one builds a religion around the notion of archetypes.  It is one thing to recognize something as archetypal, i.e. a fertility symbol being strewn out across many cultures and recognized by each culture as a fertility symbol.  It is quite another to boil a God, Goddess, or other Being down to an archetype, i.e. Odin is a Warrior, Loki is a Trickster.  While it may be true that Odin is a Warrior and Loki is a Trickster, that is not all they are.  Odin has up to 300 heiti.  How could one archetype possibly encompass all He is with so many heiti?  What does an archetypal Pagan cosmology look like?  How does it function?  What does it teach about the relationship one has with the world?  It would seem to me to be very hard to build a religion out of archetypalism, as it first stems from psychology and not religion, and its insights are geared toward the psychological rather than the religious.  That is not to say the two may not learn from one another, but describing deities, spirits, and people in merely archetypal terms belies the whole Being behind such categorizing.  It does not delve into the why of a God, or even into details, but what the God as a whole might represent to a person, i.e. Odin as a Warrior God or Dead-and-Risen God.  In viewing Gods through such archetypal lenses, while it may be useful to bridge a viewpoint or gain insight, it does disservice to the God or Goddess as a whole as it boils their Being down to this single facet.   It would be like someone boiling my whole identity down to a Psychology major or just my job title.

Where does atheism take its place in Paganism?  Do they hold religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions?  Well, considering all the followers of the major world religions, with the exception of Buddhists, believes in some sort of God, then the answer is yes in a basic sense.  But do atheists hold religious belief?  The hallmark of atheism is that, as the above definition shows, there is disbelief or lack of belief.  That is, that there is no belief in the Gods.  An affirmative belief from an atheist would then be “There are no Gods.”  What does it mean if one carries on the word Pagan, but does not believe in the Gods, Ancestors, or spirits that one may go through the motions of worshiping, hailing, venerating, etc.?  What kind of religious foundation can be placed here, in unbelief?  Again, I do not understand how one can be an atheist and a Pagan from these definitions and the understandings I have of Pagan and atheist.  If an atheist does not believe in the Gods, how does one have a cosmology?  If one does have a cosmology, how is it Pagan?  

Monism purports that there is no separation between the physical and spiritual.  One can take that to mean in the materialistic sense, that all things are part of the physical world, or in the more pro-spiritual sense, that physical reality and spiritual reality are on in the same.  Either way, the physical is it, all there is, encompassing all of reality.  How does this work within Pagan religion?  I do not see how a philosophy that would deny something as fundamental to Pagan religion as the Otherworld, the Summerlands, Helheim, etc. would effectively fit Paganism at all.  If the physical world is all there is, there is no Asgard, and Asgard’s usefulness from the view of cosmology is completely limited to symbolism or abstraction.  Accordingly, so is all that is told of the place to us from myth, legend, experience, etc.

I have many of the same questions for humanism, naturalism, and rationalism as I do for atheism as it relates to Paganism.  How do any of these engage Paganism within its own bounds rather than imposing its own philosophy on Paganism?  How does humanism, naturalism, or rationalism fit into any Pagan belief structures, many of which are deity-centric?  How does, as the Humanistic Paganism blog states “we carry on a long tradition going back to ancient times” if it actually denies the central tenets of many of those traditions?

I am a polytheist, and there is a great deal of unpacking that so simple a label now asks us to do.  Am I a ‘soft polytheist’?  Am I a ‘hard’ polytheist?  This seeming dichotomy is actually what I view as an improper use of language.  If you believe that everything is part of a single God in the end you are a monist,  pantheist, or a panentheist (depending on the particulars of your belief(s)), not a polytheist, no matter how many permutations of ‘God’ you feel and/or believe there are.

During the last few months I have read a great deal of posts and responses, and there is a pretty consistent question that comes up: why should we be so discerning or heavy handed in dissecting what Paganism means?  I won’t speak on anyone else’s behalf, but share my own answers.

First, the boundaries of my religion are sacred to me.  There are ways to properly believe and engage in my path.  There is such a thing as a blasphemy within polytheist Paganism, and every time I see the Gods called ‘nothing more than archetypes’ or the ancient traditions used as a medium for what I consider to be vacuous religion and/or spirituality, I see blasphemy being committed.  Can the Gods punish blasphemers?  Certainly, if They care to.  That said, as a member of the Pagan community it is also on me to say ‘this is not acceptable within my religion’.  If I am silent in the face of blasphemy I am giving it my tacit acceptance.

Second, the sloppy use or intentional misuse of language is often a way of erasure for minority paths in Paganism.  Statements such as ‘all Pagans believe’ are, like most blanket statements, incorrect.  Far too often have I heard this, whether from fellow Pagans, academics, or any number of well-meaning souls who are trying to speak on my behalf.  I may not agree with Atheistic Paganism, Humanistic Paganism, but I will not speak on their behalf.  The perspective I speak of is my own, from my own tradition and in my own voice. I recognize there will be polytheists who are just fine with Atheist Pagans, Humanist Pagans, and accept them as Pagan as they are.  Given my beliefs on the Gods I cannot do this.  I may not agree with you, and I will do my best to avoid characterizing you and your words wrong, but I will not speak for you.  

Third, I like my words to have concrete meaning.  Atheist Pagan, as with Humanist Pagan, leaves me with too many questions that are unanswered.  It, as a religious path from within Paganism, makes little sense to me, even on a baseline reading of the words without digging into the theology, or lack thereof.  If one does not believe in the Gods, and/or has a lack of belief in religion and/or spirituality it makes no sense to me to claim to be, in any way, shape, or form religious and/or to claim a religious title.  Archetypal Paganism leaves me with as many question, maybe more; are you worshiping images from the Collective Unconscious?  Are the Gods nothing more than thought/image symbols?  Is such a thing worthy of worship, or worth your time to worship?  If you are not worshiping, what is it one does with an archetype, religiously or spiritually speaking?

Fourth, I believe that having a better Pan-Pagan community means that we will run up against one another’s boundaries, and rather than pretend they are not there, I would rather acknowledge them.  You might hold the opinion that because I am opposed to including Humanist Pagans, Atheist Pagans and others in the Pagan community, that I am close-minded or a bigot.  Granted, you are entitled to your opinion.  This is not some decision I made overnight.  I’ve bandied this about back and forth for a significant amount of time both in my own head and with others.  I’ve thought on this a lot, prayed on it, and spent some time sussing out how I feel, and how best to talk about this subject.  You do not have to respect my opinion, or even my beliefs on this matter.  Acceptance, for me, does not change how I feel, or what my beliefs are in this.  I will respect your right to an opinion even if I cannot bring myself to respect the opinion itself.  In this, I am treating you no different than Christian friends or family, who feel much the same way toward me.

I know that, given the demographics, and overall feeling that is in the Pan-Pagan community the kind of boundary setting and exclusion I am speaking of will probably not happen.  There are too many people who accept Atheist Pagans, Humanistic Pagans, and so on as part of the community.  That is, after all, their right.  It is also mine as a polytheist Pagan to speak up and out against it, and against the marginalization of our voices in Pagan circles when and where it happens.  May the Gods be hailed, the Ancestors praised, and the spirits honored.

Connecting With Christian Ancestors

March 21, 2013 12 comments

My thanks to Sannion who prompted this post with his own.

I have been working with my Ancestors pretty closely going on about four years now.  In that time a pair of ancient Ancestors, one a Disir, a powerful female Ancestors, and the other a Vater (German word meaning ‘father’ which I use in place of ‘alfar’ which can also mean ‘elf’) have come forward to guide me in my Work.  In the last two years my Catholic Ancestors have raised Their Voices and let Themselves be known much stronger than previous.  It seems now, in addition to speaking for my long-Dead Ancestors, that I must speak for and with the Catholic ones as well.

When They first began contacting me, it was a cacophony of voices, questions like “Why did you stop going to church?  Do you not like Fr. ___ anymore?” and “You can still pray with us, yes? (or ja?, dependent on the Ancestor)?” and many others.  Their Catholic identity was so strong and intrinsic to Their Being that They carried it over with some part of Them into Death.  If Their Catholicism is as deep, powerful, and purposeful a presence in Their life as Paganism is in mine, that it lasts well after They have crossed over, who am I to argue with Their spirits?

Part of engaging with the Ancestors is to encounter Them on Their own terms, regardless of how comfortable They make us,  but I take that only to a point.  That point for me is an abusive Ancestor who has been abusive towards myself and/or others that has refuted any attempts at reconciliation.  I do not have Ancestors who abused me while They lived, and for that, I am deeply grateful.  The point of working with our Ancestors is not to tear open old wounds unnecessarily, but where we can, to give comfort, healing, and connection to Them and to ourselves, the Worlds we live in, and the places They once lived.   In the case of an abusive Ancestor I advise contacting an older and/or closer Ancestor to you than that person.

I was deeply uncomfortable, especially at first, with the offerings my Catholic Ancestors wanted me to make.  They wanted me to go to church, to sing Them Catholic songs I had learned as a child, to read to Them from the Bible.  As with a lot of my Work I came to understand that really my comfort is secondary to doing what is right for my Ancestors.  For my Ancestors who still identify as Catholic, there is a profound peace, purpose, and love They find in the liturgy They have me read, in the songs I sing, in the love I show to Them by doing this.

There are certain things I will not do, such as attend church services where I directly participate in the Mass, i.e. taking Communion.  I would be lying to myself, my Ancestors, my Catholic Ancestors especially, and to Their God.  I would also be taking into my body the Body and Blood of Christ, and that I cannot do, for many theological reasons, chief among them being that I am Odin’s and so, I cannot proclaim the Catholic Mystery of Faith.  While I may go to a Mass for a family member, such as a funeral or a wedding, I cannot be part of it as my Catholic relatives will be.

What I do, instead, is do as my Ancestors have asked in concession.  I carry in my pocket a green Gideon New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs.  I may pray to the Ancestors out of it, sing from it, or, as They have had me do more recently, listen to Them with it.  I shut my eyes, letting the pages flow along my fingers until I hit a page and feel or ‘hear’ stop.  When this happens I let my fingers flow along the page until I feel or ‘hear’ stop again, and look at what the message from Them is.  It is especially helpful because it is a way my Catholic Ancestors feel comfortable with it, and it gives us a common connection.  I happen to find great beauty in the Psalms, especially 23.

I have also placed my First Communion rosary on the Ancestor Altar for Them, and a red Gideon New Testament like the one above, and keep it as I would anything else on the Ancestor Altar.  While I do not pray the rosary, given the Nicene Creed is part of it, it is there as a reminder, and a way of connection many of my Dead.  I need not pray the rosary to feel its influence in my life, particularly my Ancestors’ skull prayer beads, which brings me great comfort and connection.

The Catholic prayers I once prayed and sang, the many days I spent at prayer in church have had good effect on how I pray to my own Gods.  The process of learning to sing, clearly and in more-than-ordinary language, lends itself to the altered states of consciousness, the mindfulness I hope to achieve with Them.  I learned “Adeste Fideles”, otherwise known as “O Come All Ye Faithful” in first grade, and loved the Latin language.  I was required to know what I was singing, and why I was singing it.  To know not just the words that the Latin translated into, but what they meant to those I was singing them to, and for me, given I was singing solo.  Rote prayer has a power with me because it is what I grew on.  Intellectual investigation of the source materials for my religion, and constantly questioning was appreciated by my priests, and it is one of many things I carried with me into my Paganism.  An appreciation of spiritual gifts and mystic experiences was given to me at a young age, where I had an experience kneeling before the Tabernacle during one of my Confirmation classes.  I prayed for two hours, and experienced Christ in a deeply personal way, His Voice, His touch.  It is from these deep wells of learning, from then and more recently, that much of my devotional Work is culled from.

Working with my Catholic Ancestors is rebuilding a bridge between us I had long thought burnt to ash.  When I became a Pagan I spoke with Yahweh, explaining that my choice to follow the Goddess, then Brighid, was not to hurt Him or betray Him, but a following of my heart for what called me, and I recognized that the Voice was not His.  I thought in this I would have to cut most,  if not all ties to my Catholic family, Ancestors included.  I am deeply happy to be shown that is not the case.

The impassable wall that I feared I had built between myself and my family seems to be much less a solid wall than one with many gates, some shut to me, and others wide open.  Ancestor Work is one of those wide open gates, and there are Ancestors freely coming to many of my rituals, Catholic Ancestors and otherwise.  Sometimes we must be the ones to raise that gate and acknowledge our Ancestors.  Sometimes They will come to us and invite us to meet between, acknowledging us on our path, still extending love, and connecting with us.  It is, as with all things, Gebo.

A Useful Teacup

August 22, 2012 17 comments

Boundaries are useful.  They mark out what is, what is not; what belongs, what does not belong.  Boundaries are, by their nature, discriminatory.  We do not want to live alongside bugs, animals, and other parts of our natural world, so we make houses.  If we lack the means or if we want to, we live in nature.

Utgarð, Innangarð.  There can be places between these boundaries, but sometimes there is a simple in/out binary that exists.  I would say there are few of these, but they exist.

I wish Pagans were more respectful of boundaries.  Take this to mean personal boundaries, such as being able to reject hugs, not get glitter-bombed at a convention, or getting ‘healed’ by a well-meaning but ignorant co-religionist.  Take this to mean between our  religions; I am not a follower of the Hellenic Gods therefore, I am not part of Hellenismos, as beautiful as this community may be.  They, likewise, are not Northern Tradition, Heathen, etc.  I respect this boundary by calling myself what I feel I am closest aligned with, and what my actual practice is aligned with.  Take this to mean ‘this is what makes a Pagan a Pagan’ and ‘this is what makes a non-Pagan a non-Pagan’.

An anonymous guest on The Wild Hunt asked of a poster there:

Yeah, how is all this labeling/limiting of Paganism (and others, too really) helping to create openness and understanding anyhow rather than just creating prejudices and misconceptions people got to work over?

This unwillingness to set boundaries is an issue in Paganism that needs to be resolved.  How useful is a teacup in a million pieces?  If the word Pagan, or Paganism has as much utility, how useful is it as a word?  Wiccan, or Northern Tradition are far more useful, (though I admit I get where Elizabeth Vongvisith is coming from in her irritation with the latter term) because they are functional.  They are words that have operational definitions within the Pagan religions’ umbrella.  Paganism, as a word and definition is so nebulous as to be almost completely unwieldy.  It is why I say Northern Tradition Pagan, or Heathen rather than just “I am a Pagan” most times.  They are intact teacups.  They hold the water of thought so that I can offer it to others.

The attitude of the poster assumes that openness is actually desirable, to whit Dver’s response was:

Who said the goal is always to create openness? At the expense of everything else? I’ve seen, for instance, many polytheist groups embrace openness and lose all their focus, intent and usefulness as they quickly filled with people of so many varying approaches that nothing could be agreed upon or accomplished. The “point” of paganism IMO is not to be concerned with making everyone feel welcome and included (which, as always, puts the emphasis on people and their feelings), the point is to worship the gods (emphasis on the divine). If being open doesn’t serve that, then it’s not going to be a primary goal, at least for some. Unsurprisingly, it is often the ones insisting on understanding who least understand this point of view.

Openness has usefulness, but so does limitation.  The negativity towards limiting the term Paganism, thus, increasing its actual functionality, is like saying “Well, I like my teacup in a million pieces.”  So how do we go about putting this teacup back together?

We start by limiting the definition of Paganism.  Perhaps to those who believe in Gods, Goddesses, spirits, etc.  Perhaps not.  Is Atheistic Paganism, for instance, a useful term?  If by Atheistic Paganism we mean ‘non-theistic’, that is, a person who believes in spiritual beings or in a form of deism or pantheism, perhaps that is functionally useful.  If we use the modern use of atheism, that is, a person without a belief in God(s) (usually included in this is a disbelief of the spiritual world), then I question how useful the term is.  Atheistic Paganism, as a straightforward term, muddies waters already fairly murky.  As a collection of religions we cannot agree yet on what the words Pagan and Paganism mean.  How much harder will it be to suss out Atheistic Pagans?  What of Humanist Pagans?

Brendan Myers, Ph.D., made this statement on Humanist Pagans as part of his guest blog post on The Wild Hunt:

Call it a case of observer bias on my part, but Humanist Paganism seems to be an emerging option for those who want to be part of the Pagan community, but who want to be a little more intellectual about their practices, and they really don’t care about the “woo” anymore.  From what I have seen so far, Humanist Pagans tend to be uninterested in ritual, or energy work, or developing psychic powers…

But they love folklore and mythology, they love going to pagan festivals, and they subscribe to pagan moral values like the Wiccan Rede, and the Heroic Virtues. They’re perfectly happy to shout “Hail Thor!” with an upraised drinking horn. They don’t care whether the gods exist or do not exist: for as they see it, the existence of the gods is not what matters. Rather, what matters is the pursuit of a good and worthwhile life, and the flourishing of our social and environmental relations. They are a kind of pagan that perhaps has not been seen since classical Greece and Rome, and their place in the modern pagan movement may still be marginal and unclear, but they are a kind of pagan nonetheless.

My problem to begin with, is that he does not define what Humanistic Paganism even is in this passage.  Looking at the links provided at the end of his article, Humanist Paganism is as problematic a term as simply Pagan is.  It is nebulous as a term, and there is very little agreement on what it actually means (from what I have read) between various Humanist Pagans.  This quote from Humanistic Paganism especially irks me:

Humanism and Paganism are complementary.  While Humanism is well-adapted to address the latest intellectual and social issues, it lacks the kind of deep symbolic texture conducive to psychological fulfillment.  Paganism is positioned to fill that void, providing a field of symbolic imagery in which the modern individual can feel rooted and nourished.  Meanwhile, Paganism by itself is prone to superstition and factiousness.  Humanism, which embraces a vision of knowledge rooted in the five senses and verified through the scientific method, offers empirical inquiry as a means to sift the wheat from the chaff, as well as to mediate the varieties of Paganism without eradicating their differences.  Together, Humanism and Paganism keep in check and mutually nourish each other.  Humanism keeps Paganism true to the empirical world around us, while Paganism enriches Humanism with deep symbolic imagery.

What I read in this, is that Humanist Paganism seeks to appropriate the symbols, Gods, etc. of Paganism while lacking in belief in them, not living in Gebo with those Gods, symbols, power, etc.  All humans are susceptible to superstition and factiousness.  Humanism brings nothing to Paganism it did not already have.  I also do not see how Humanism nourishes Paganism in this relationship, so much as feeds off of it.    What wheat does Humanism hope to bring from the chaff of Paganism?  How can it keep the differences between traditions?  How does Humanism actually keep Paganism true to the empirical world around us, when even scientists, who are supposed to keep true to the empirical method, and follow the scientific method, with peer-reviewed and published papers may lead us astray or be intentionally dishonest?

Myers makes the point in his post that:

For those who struggle with anti-pagan prejudices and stereotypes, Humanist Paganism might be a powerful educational tool. It can show that a pagan can be a sophisticated, cosmopolitain, and enlightened person, and that a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just.

Actually, rather than using Humanist Paganism as a tool, I would think that Pagans can and should be able to show themselves as sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and enlightened people, should they choose to do so, with or without Humanism or Humanist leanings.  The Fourfold Path of Humanist Paganism is already greatly expounded on in Pagan traditions.  As with Atheist Paganism, as a term, does Humanist Paganism add anything meaningful to the already admittedly murky definition of Paganism?

This is where boundaries are deeply needed.  If the term Pagan is a shattered teacup, then what good does adding more shards to it do?  How are we ever to come to an understanding of a term if we are forever breaking the teacup so everyone can have their sliver?  What tea does it hold?

Am I saying that Humanist Pagans are not real Pagans?  I am not sure that is my call to make.  I am one person in the communities that make up this great umbrella.  But real in what sense?  If we go with the definition “A person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions” then I suppose Humanism works under that definition.

Then, however, there is the definition of humanism: “An outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.”

No.  This does not work for me.  I do not believe that humans are the do-all, end-all.  I do not believe we should or do come before the Gods, spirits, or Ancestors.  We are anthropocentric enough in America, and the devastation that has done to our environment alone gives me pause if not active disdain in supporting anything that encourages it.

I would far rather that Pagans come together to decide what Pagan means to them, than to have more users of the word take its meaning completely away from anything to do with our Gods, spirits, and Ancestors.  I would even prefer that the term remain nebulous to include polytheists, pantheists, duotheists, and henotheists, than to completely lose any attachment to the Gods at all in the name of inclusion.  I would prefer to repair the teacup, or find a new one so that it is useful once more.

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